Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fairfield Closer to Redemption for Past MAAC Losses

A year ago Fairfield was not only the top seed in the MAAC's post-season tournament, but hosted the event on its own court.

And, then, it got eliminated by fourth-seeded Saint Peter's in the semifinal round.

A little poetic justice ... maybe a little redemption, perhaps ... for the Stags this season as the No. 4 seed erasing some of the painful memories of a year ago by upsetting this season's top-seeded Iona team, 85-75, in this year's tournament semifinal round at Springfield's MassMutual Center.

Maybe a little redemption for the end of the 2009-10 season, too, when Fairfield held a 16-point lead early in the second half of that season's tournament championship home game against Siena on the Saints' Times Union Center home court in Albany, N.Y.

In that game, then freshman Colin Nickerson missed a shot at the end of regulation that would have won it for the Stags.

Nickerson clearly remembers that late game miss, as well as last season's disappointing end to its MAAC tournament title.

"Yeah, this is a little redemption," said Nickerson, who got some personal satisfaction by making big shots in Sunday's quarterfinal round contest, including three consecutive three-pointers midway through the first half that kept the Gaels from pulling away early.

"The seeding position doesn't matter. I don't want to get carried away but we really think we have something special going."

Fairfield had something going for much of Sunday's second half. After Iona (now 25-7 overall) took a 60-54 advantage early in the second half the winners went on a 16-1 run to take a 70-61 lead and Iona never got closer than six again. Down the stretch Fairfield, which made 57.7 percent of its second-half shots, outscorred Iona, 31-15.

I think we're a better team than a year ago, even though we're without Derek (Needham, the team's top guard)," added Nickerson. "We're more together. We're more like a family. There's a real bond between players. Nobody beefs when there's a mistake. No one gets down  when there's a mistake. We just put it behind us and move on."

Fairfield moves on to Monday's 7 p.m. championship game against the winner of the Siena-Loyola contest.

"This is a testament to our guys really showing up today, and we're fortunate to have made more shots," said Stags' coach Sydney Johnson. "Our guys did everything we asked them to do. We just played very well, and that's what we needed to do to beat a really good team."

Iona, ranked 40th in the Ratings Percentage Index prior to Sunday's game, will surely drop by possibly as many as 10 or more spots by losing to the now 19-13 Stags who aren't even in the RPI's top 100.

It's likely to mean the Gaels won't get an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament but they do have the conference's automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament by virtue of finishing as the MAAC's regular-season champion.

"We did not play our best game and we picked a bad day to not play as well as we could," said Iona coach Tim Cluess. "The ball was kind of dying (not moving) a little with our guys on offense. On defense, we gave their non-shooters shots and, to their credit, they were making them."

Fairfield also out-rebounded Iona, 32-20 in the contest.

Senior forward Rakim Sanders, a transfer after three seasons at Boston College, led Fairfield with 26 points (19 in the second half) and 12 rebounds, both game-high totals. Junior guard Desmond Wade, who moved into the starting lineup when Needham went out four games ago, had 11 assists and just two turnovers for the winners.

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